WASHINGTON, DC, November 12, 2012 — “The Untold History of the United States” has Oliver Stone, author, producer, and three-time Academy Award winning director and renowned historian and American University Professor Peter Kuznick reimagining history while asking “what if?” The series is airing its first installment on Showtime tonight at 8:00pm ET.
Famous for tackling controversial subjects through films like Platoon, Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July, W., and JFK, “The Untold History of the United States,” as the name suggests, promises a Stone-style, sometimes supplemental and often contradictory view of the American history on which most of us have been raised.
Sitting across from Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel’s luxurious lobby in DC on Friday, I couldn’t help but notice how markedly different the two men seemed. Stone, larger than life and highly animated, offered stark contrast to historian Kuznick, who sat calmly with folded hands, separating them only to punctuate the importance of specific questions or comment.
Two-seconds into the interview, I realized that presentation style was where their differences ended as they remained lock-step in agreement throughout our discussion, sometimes finishing each others’ sentences, and often deferring to each other with a confidence that comes from knowing and working with someone over many years.
One of my first questions involved criticism of the re-elected President, found in the documentary’s complementary book of the same title. Headlines featured on the website Politico, as well as others, screamed “Oliver Stone’s new book rips President Obama” and “Stone: ‘Obama is scary,’” suggesting that the work is nothing more than a scathing attack on President Obama.
Stone, who voted for the President in 2008 and again in the recent election cycle, was quick to correct my characterization and qualify, “I think I criticized him fairly within the context of 224 years of American history, and many other Presidents whom we are equally critical of. There’s a standard, once you establish a standard you have to adhere to it. Perhaps we’re idealists, but it’s a standard of fairness, legality, and sticking to your word.”
Kuznick chimed in, “We think that Obama is potentially salvageable, and maybe if he reads this, I hope he’ll read this soon, and invite us to the White House soon to debate this with him, he’ll change policy.”
What would Stone and Kuznick like to see from an Obama administration going into its second term? Stone deferred to Kuznick, who offered without hesitation, “We want to see the war in Afghanistan ended; we want it to end sooner than 2014. As soon as Obama announced it was going to end in 2014, Robert Gates was asked by Afghanis: ‘When is the United States going to pull out of Afghanistan?’ He said: ‘Never.’“
“We have to make sure, number one, that he pulls out of Afghanistan,” Kuznick continued. “Number two, we want to see the United States become part of the world community again, rather than an outlier, rather than a cowboy nation, rather than the world’s mercenaries, we want to see the United States part of the world community. Number three, we want to see a de-emphasis on militarism. The fact that the United States, according to the National Priorities Project, spends about $1.2 trillion a year on its military security, defense, intelligence, forty percent of the budget, we think is outrageous. We spend more than the rest of the world combined.
“Number four, we want to see Obama promise nuclear abolition, we want to see him follow through on that. Even Kissinger and many conservatives think it is time for that. Number five, we want to see him pull back from weaponization of space. In 2006, the United Nations voted 166 to 1 against weaponization of space. The United States was the only country that opposed, that vetoed it. We want to see that actually happen because we’re going on a very dangerous trajectory now. Not just drones, but new levels and new degrees of surveillance, pinpointing targets.”
Stone added, “Cyber warfare too.” Kuznick nodded in agreement and continued, “That’s very threatening for the future.”
But Stone and Kuznick’s project is about so much more than President Obama. Their undertaking, which offers a different, sometimes completely contradictory perspective on American history, takes great pains to call out the building and collapse of an “American Empire” and the erosion of civil liberties.
When I asked Kuznick if the first signs of the crumbling of the “American Empire” began with the war in Afghanistan, he explained that the deterioration had begun years ago when America fought another war.
“It started with Vietnam. I think it’s been a continuum since Vietnam. You could even say that it even started with Korea. The fact that we didn’t win the Korean War. Korea was a standoff. Vietnam was a defeat. Oliver fought there. He was in combat there. He was wounded twice.”
Referring to the sacrifice of civil liberties at different times in American history, and to post-9/11 measures such as the Patriot Act and the National Defense Authorization Act, Kuznick pointedly asked, “Why are we willing to give up our civil liberties, and so easily, without a fight? Bush began the process in some ways, but Obama has taken it much further. Obama pledged transparency when he was running for office. We’ve had anything but transparency, and in certain ways Obama has gone beyond what Bush was doing. Bush was at least controversial about it, but with Obama doing it people have accepted it.”
Stone tied the loss of civil liberties into the advancement of technology; specifically, the technological capability of the National Security Agency to intercept over 1.7 billion telephone calls and emails in a single day. To his thinking, “Technology defeats civil liberties.”
Stone went on to say that our loss of civil liberties is tied to a loss much more basic that needs to be addressed. “I would go further than civil liberties, I would say the law. I wouldn’t just say civil liberties, because civil liberties grow out of the law. I would go back to the Magna Carta which was signed in 1215. There has to be a checks and balance, that’s what we fought our Revolution for, that’s who we are.”
So, why take the time to watch this documentary and read the book? In Stone’s words, “We’re going to go in the junk heap of history like everyone else at the end of time, and they’re going to talk about the US Empire the same way that they talk about the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the British Empire, the Roman Empire. Six of them bit the dust in the twentieth20th century. What makes us think that we are exceptional to history?”
I ended by asking Stone and Kuznick what advice they may have for the youth of the world. Kuznick took a deep breath and responded after consideration, “I’m a professor. I deal with young people your age every day, and they’re looking and they’re questioning, and they’re wanting to understand what’s going on, and they’re pessimistic about their future, not only in terms of job prospects, but they see the world as a constant state of war.”
“We emphasize the fact that history could have been different. It didn’t have to turn out this way. Repeatedly over the course of our history in the 20th and 21st century, we have come close to being very different. That’s why we talk about Henry Wallace coming five feet within becoming Vice President again and then President, that’s why we talk about when Stalin died March 5th, 1953, how close that came to being the end of the Cold War.”“
“Then, we talk about the Kennedy assassination, about Johnson’s presidency and how that could have been different. We talk about Nixon and the ways that that could have been different. We’ve had so many opportunities and young people have to understand that. They can’t be defeated, they can’t be demoralized. They really admire the 1960s, they really love Oliver’s movie The Doors. They want a different sense of the 1960s, they think that our generation experienced that and it was so exciting and they’re kind of frozen out of that opportunity. We’re trying to say you have to try and create that opportunity, and the world can be different. We’re trying to give them a message of understanding the past, so they can change the future, but what we don’t want to say is that they can’t change, we want to say that there is hope. We think that there can be.”
This is one message of hope and change that really does deserve a conversation at the White House.
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